Why climate change can never be ‘someone else’s problem’
After The Oregonian published a short article of mine on-line about the infamous ‘Oregon Petition’ – another bogus bit of nonsense that attempted to divide and conquer climate science – I checked back to see what the comments were like. As is so often the case with the climate change debate, there were a number of ironies on display, but also a more telling conclusion to be drawn.
I was struck by one comment, which connects with a number of other issues mentioned in the posts. It was this: “Who cares what an English writer thinks about anything?”.
The short answer is this: “Anyone who understands that the quality of an article doesn’t depend on where the writer was sitting when he wrote it”. But the remark also struck me as an echo of something the US has long abandoned – isolationism – and for any number of good, and mostly practical, reasons.
Before WW2, US foreign policy could largely be summed up as ‘fight your own goddam wars and leave us out of it’. Japan put paid to staying out of WW2 at Pearl Harbour, leaving the US no option but to abandon its long-standing policy of non-intervention. Yamamoto’s remark about waking ‘a sleeping giant’ may be the work of Hollywood scriptwriters, but they weren’t wrong.
During the second half of the twentieth century, America bestrode the world as giants do. It brought us miracles of technology and industry, culture and art. It also brought us rampant paranoia, imperialism, a series of devastating wars, and the most formidable military force the world had ever seen. Don’t get me wrong: nothing that the US did was exceptional except the scale at which it did it; the US was the new kid playing the Great Game, but just like everyone else they were only honing the skills, techniques, methods and mistakes of the Romans, the Khans, the Crusaders, the Machiavellis, the Napoleons and the British, among the many empire builders that have come and gone.
On balance, I’d say America has been a force for good, but we could argue that one forever and never reach any real conclusion. It doesn’t matter much, because we can’t change the past. We should observe the most crucial change this has wrought, however; the impact of globalisation.
We live in a joined up world. Trade and finance have become so internationalised that only the colour of our money is different; where it comes from and where it goes to is frequently a global destination. Art and culture are international; we watch the Wire, Americans listen to Mumford & Sons. And so too is science international. Nobody gets their own periodic table; electrons serving conservatives don’t spin in the opposite direction to those powering the left.
And then there’s the first ever truly global threat: Climate change. There is little point in any country looking inward now, because no matter where you live, your CO2 is my CO2. The extra energy we’re adding to the climate, and that contributes to extreme weather (it doesn’t cause it, just makes it worse), will make my weather just as erratic as everyone else’s. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run; whatever is coming for us is going to be very democratic, in a horridly ironic way: we’re all going to get shafted.
Returning to the comments below my article, the attempt to exclude me on the basis of my nationality seemed really old fashioned. Another irony was the international consistency of climate change contrarian arguments; I might as well have been reading the usual suspects in the Guardian forums for all the difference I could detect. It seems that climate change denial is as globalised as everything else, despite their parochial observations to the contrary.
For example, the models get various mentions. Climate models are the lowest of low-hanging fruit in the public discourse, because nobody knows anything about them. Consequently, it’s very easy to make gross generalisations about them, how bad they are and all that. It’s not very credible to criticise models because they are not exact; they can’t be, given that climate is fundamentally chaotic (non-linear, in the jargon). Models are like maps: X may mark the spot, but the map can’t tell you you how long it will take you to reach it, particularly if you choose a circuitous route. We’re always going to be disappointed if our expectations are unreasonable.
Science is working very hard to understand a very complex thing; how we’re affecting the climate, and all the inter-relationships that contribute to our daily weather, wherever we are. It’s actually done a good job in general, and so too have the models, which you can read about here. It’s also untrue that the current slow-down in surface temperatures was never predicted; in fact, as far back as 1979, the Charney Report did exactly that – they just couldn’t put a date on it:
“One of the major uncertainties has to do with the transfer of the increased heat into the oceans. It is well known that the oceans are a thermal regulator, warming the air in winter and cooling it in summer. The standard assumption has been that, while heat is transferred rapidly into a relatively thin, well- mixed surface layer of the ocean (averaging about 70 m in depth), the transfer into the deeper waters is so slow that the atmospheric temperature reaches effective equilibrium with the mixed layer in a decade or so…It seems to us quite possible that the capacity of the deeper oceans to absorb heat has been seriously underestimated, especially that of the intermediate waters of the subtropical gyres lying below the mixed layer and above the main thermocline. If this is so, warming will proceed at a slower rate until these intermediate waters are brought to a temperature at which they can no longer absorb heat.
“Our estimates of the rates of vertical exchange of mass between the mixed and intermediate layers and the volumes of water involved give a delay of the order of decades in the time at which thermal equilibrium will be reached. This delay implies that the actual warming at any given time will be appreciably less than that calculated on the assumption that thermal equilibrium is reached quickly. One consequence may be that perceptible temperature changes may not become apparent nearly so soon as has been anticipated. We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable. The equilibrium warming will eventually occur; it will merely have been postponed”.
The Charney report was written in 1979. The models the report was based on – all two of them – ran on computers with a lot less power than my mobile phone. None the less, the report’s authors still accurately predicted the intermittent nature of surface temperature warming that climate change deniers keep claiming has never figured previously.
The understanding, analysis and projection of future global warming is a subject for the experts. I believe climate scientists; I have no reason not to. Scientists gave us all the wonders and terrors of the modern world, and they get better at science every day. There’s a huge effort by vested interests to undermine our trust, to convince us that scientists are arguing about climate change when they’re not. But if we want to understand how fast this problem is coming at us, we only have to look out of the window; the isolationist argument is that ‘we’ve always had…(rain, snow, wind, fire, draughts etc)’. Yet when was the last time the entire planet had extreme weather, all at the same time? Here’s Christina Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat, during a visit to the UK’s Guardian recently:
“The “very strange” weather experienced across the world over the last two years was a sign “we are [already] experiencing climate change,” she declared. “”If you take them individually you can say maybe it’s a fluke. The problem is it’s not a fluke and you can’t take them individually. What it’s doing is giving us a pattern of abnormality that’s becoming the norm.”
Climate change is global, and no amount of isolationism is going to protect us. This is the first time humanity has faced a problem we can’t avoid by taking sides. We need to work together, to understand not what divides us, but what we share, what we have in common that we need to protect, and what forces for self-interest are trying to convince us that a clear and present danger really isn’t any such thing. They do this by foisting dud petitions on us, they do it by constantly attacking the probity and skill of climate scientists, and they do it by pretending that bad weather is only happening in their back yards, instead of everybody’s.
We have a lot in common, right across this joined up world. And when it comes to climate change, what we share is a threat to every man, woman, child and dollar on the planet. It’s about time we stopped trying to find the differences between us, and started to value the things we all share, and that mean so much to us – the quality of our lives, and the hopes we hold for our children.